Toru Returns

August 18th, 2010

The chatter and the banter have stopped abruptly and the only noise now is the sound of the sea gently washing against the rocks below. The three of us begin to watch silently. We peer through the viewfinders of our digital cameras, using them as filters against the reality that is unfolding before us. A sixteen-year-old Japanese schoolboy is beginning to solo the third ascent of a seriously under-graded Cornish granite arête. The crux is at the top and the landing is appalling. His footwork is ridiculously precise and he moves quickly up to the hardest moves. He pauses. We dare not utter the slightest whisper. Suddenly he screams. Two blood-curdling banzai shrieks. We all think that he has messed up the crux and that he will fall to be dashed on the rocks below. We hold our breaths. We are all very scared. Toru has returned.

Toru NakaJima Soloing 'Storms Over Africa' E6 6b at Cribba Head, Cornwall, England Copyright Alex Ekins

Last August, the then unknown Toru Nakajima was found wandering alone amid the Dark Peak gritstone. He was 15-years-old and he had managed to flash Brad Pit, headpoint Gaia E8, Simba’s Pride E8 and Elm Street E8. Then on his last day he led Nocturnal Emission before finishing up Parthian Shot both E9 and then went on to climb Meshuga E9. All these routes were led with impeccable style with minimal practise in poor humid summer conditions. And to seal his place in British climbing history, he had soloed the first ascent of Black Out, an E9 at Burbage South, one of gritstone’s last great problems.

Toru had now returned as a guest on the 2010 British Mountaineering Council International Sea Cliff Climbing Meet. The idea of the meet is to promote and in some cases introduce the world’s climbers to the British tradition of leader-placed protection. Internationally this style of climbing is becoming increasingly rare. Bolts are spreading and sports climbing is becoming the norm. British climbing is often seen as unnecessarily dangerous and somewhat crazy. However many countries, including Japan have a honourable non-bolted climbing tradition, and all they need is a little help to find their way back onto the true path.

The development of climbing in Japan initially followed a similar pattern to climbing in Britain. A strong tradition of mountaineering and alpinism was followed by Yosemite inspired rock-climbing development at the major crags. All of Japan’s classic routes were first climbed using leader-placed protection. In the eighties the popularity of French style sports climbing spread back to Japan. For a short while trad and sports climbing managed to exist comfortably alongside each other. However in the late eighties it all went terribly wrong and somehow all the trad routes in all the popular climbing areas were retro-bolted.

Toru Nakajima at 'Lanyon Quoit' Cornwall, England - Copyright Alex Ekins

In Cornwall, Toru was climbing with Keita Kanahara, a Japanese veteran of 15 separate routes on Yosemite’s El Capitan and new routes in Baffin. They are both in the vanguard of a very small minority of Japanese climbers who are now beginning to fight back against the indiscriminate drilling. Some bolts have been removed but they are soon replaced and the battle continues. In Japan, where Toru is seen as a bit of a mutant, he has gained a huge amount of publicity for last summers exploits on the grit. As an 8c+ climber on bolts Toru is now determined to use his talents and fame to advocate and promote what he believes to be the higher cause of traditional climbing.

At Cribba Head, Toru soon set to work with a solo of the controversial and possibly under-graded Storms Over Africa. Originally climbed by Mark Rowlands with a drilled peg. Shane Ohly removed the peg and made a ground-up solo repeat. The guidebook grade is E6 6b, Toru said it felt like an E8. Then Mark Edward’s 1994 E9, Question Mark, was quickly tried on a top-rope. Despite initially being mislead by the incorrect sequence depicted in the set-up photo in the Edwards guide, Toru made all the moves on his second go and would have undoubtedly led the third ascent if we hadn’t run out of time.

Sennen now became the focus of Toru’s attention. A head-point of Let The River Live E6 6b, was followed by a look at 29 Palms. Rowland and Mark Edwards, originally climbed this route in 1987, using four pegs for protection. The peg holes were subsequently retro-drilled and the pegs renewed, before the pegs were finally removed. Toru was quickly ready for the lead after a quick look on a top-rope. Unfortunately the tide came in and he was unable to climb the route without his belayer drowning. Toru however seemed happy to stare at the sea for the rest of the day before soloing Hell Hath No Fear, an E7 6c with possibly the most body mangling landing at Sennen.

Toru nakajima soloing 'Hell Hath No Fear' E7 6c, Sennen, Cornwall, England - Copyright Alex Ekins

The next morning Toru prepared himself to lead 29 Palms. He did his usual thing of wandering off alone for an hour, before rushing back, quickly tying on and getting straight onto the route. However, unknown to the trembling spectators, Toru had decided not to place any protection in the drilled peg holes. This meant there were only four poor runners on the whole length of the 20-metre route. Toru placed the first two brass offsets so low that they offered no protection. He then moved smoothly up to place the third offset, the only runner protecting the long 6c crux sequences. With the brass wire firmly set, Toru composed himself before juddering up into the crux moves and smoothly kicking out the crucial runner, which then slithered down to rest atop the useless lower wires. The crux was now completely unprotected. There was absolutely no hesitation, Toru just carried on as coolly as ever. He said later that he couldn’t reverse the moves so he just got on with it. A final runner on easy ground near the top completed the formalities. The grade is a very conservative E8 6c.

Toru Nakajima climbing with the four pieces of equipment he used on his ascent of '29 Palms' E8 6c - Copyright Alex Ekins

After a brief and cursory rest, Toru then moved rightwards and easily on-sighted Tears of a Clown, a reachy E7 6b, before ending his brief Cornish visit with an on-sight of Pinch The Egyptian E6 6c.

At the end of the week, I asked Toru how he had managed to get time off from his school exams to travel to Cornwall to climb hard and dangerous routes. He just grinned and said he had bunked-off. Toru had just pulled the ultimate sickie.

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